Being a city dweller in an increasingly urbanized world will mean learning how to share space with very different people, says planner and urban scholar Richard Sennett.
You celebrate the complexities and oddities of cities, and you offer some helpful comparisons that can make cities somewhat more understandable. For example, you make a distinction between “space” versus “place.”
You move through a space and you dwell in a place. It’s a distinction for me that has to do with speed and automobiles. When people start driving at a certain speed, they lose awareness of where they are. They are just getting through it. And when you dwell in a place, you have a slower relationship to it. It’s a difference that is founded in our bodies. When you are moving very fast, your peripheral vision, for instance, is very weak. When you bike or you walk, your cognitive field is much bigger because you’re taking in much more from the sides.
Where this gets reflected in urbanism is the more we create spaces where people move fast, the less they understand about what those spaces are. I’m a big fan of walking, but this applies also to cycling. At about 28 or 30 mph people moving through an urban environment stop being in a place and are in space instead. This is one of the horrible things about automobiles. They’ve cut down on the kind of cognitive data that people have about where they are.
Can you explain one more distinction—what’s the difference between a “prescriptive” smart city and a “coordinating” smart city?
The prescriptive smart city just tells you the best way to do something, the best route. It does your thinking for you. Whereas the coordinating smart city expands your realm of choice—it gives you data about the whole city that enables you to think about the question, what should we do here? Think about Google Maps—you get the little options at top for driving or using public transportation or walking, but the algorithms are usually set to give you the shortest possible distance. You can’t ask Google Maps what’s the most interesting way to get from A to B. It’s prescriptive.
Le Corbusier had that famous line about donkeys meandering, with their little brains, and humans walking in straight lines. But some of us like to meander like a donkey in the city.
This is grounded for me in the work I’ve been doing for the UN for the past three decades on urban planning. There are relatively few mixed neighborhoods in big emerging cities. If people are rich, they live segregated from the poor, and vice-versa. So the question is, they’re living in a relatively economically homogeneous space, but how do they live socially? With their neighbors?
In Delhi, where I’ve done a lot of work, the ethical question is: Will Muslims and Hindus be able to share the same space? Do they hang out at the same street corner? Do they use the same tea shops? Do they shop for food in the same places? These ethical questions aren’t about being a law-abiding citizen or respecting somebody else’s property rights—they’re really social questions about how people who are different can get along together.
Unfortunately, in a lot of developing cities they don’t get along very well. That’s why I’m interested in the fuzzy boundaries between, say, work and school—it’s in those complicated areas that people either mix or don’t mix.
Urbanites have choices, then, and the urbanist or planner also has choices about how to build or design to enable or encourage mixing. How does the planner look at it?
I’ll give you an example. People in Colombia have been experimenting with how to take apart highways, which are insulated from living in places like Bogotá, and make them more alive at their edges. You create a street where before there was only a traffic artery. And that’s something we as planners have got to do more. We’ve been building too much segregated, separated zones of activity in the city. It’s one reasons cities go dead—there’s no interaction between the functions of what people are doing.
The city dweller does not merely act out preconceived roles according to the built environment, of course. The way they walk, look, and listen matters too.
Once you’ve got a street, people have choices about whether to use it or not. And they’ll use it in surprising ways. Nobody expected the boulevards in Paris to become the sociable places they were. But people chose to use them that way because they wanted to see what was happening out and about in the city. That sort of curiosity—if the space enables it—tends to overcome people’s fear in the long run.
Mumbai has high levels of violence, except in big public spaces where people can look at other people. Even if they never talk to each other, they see people unlike themselves. Those tend to be the most peaceful places in Mumbai, whereas the little intimate streets and alleyways—all populated by people who know one another—are crime zones. It’s a kind of basic rule of urbanism—remember “eyes on the street.” But they’re not eyes in apartment buildings looking down on the street, they are eyes in the street, on the street. I think there’s a kind of urban ethics that some kind of spaces will enable people to let their curiosity balance their fear of others.
Think of the stairways and streets of Elena Ferrante’s Naples. Everyone’s always watching, but there’s plenty of violence.
Another way of thinking about this is scale. Brutalism has become trendy again, and I get the impression there is a return of the appetite for big planning. But must we go big and, if so, can it be done well?
We have to, particularly in the non-Western world, because those cities are growing to huge sizes. If you were a follower of Jane Jacobs, her prescriptions for small, slow growth are way out-of-sync with the reality of cities that add a million in population every year, like Delhi. Or that, like Beijing, are nearly 60 miles across. In the developing world, the issue is there are very few resources at your disposal. You can’t put a high school within walking distance of everyone. You can’t think locally. You have got to think at this urban scale. At the public level, you don’t have enough resources to go around.
If you spent times in the corridors of the Obama Administration in HUD and places like that, people were always talking about strategies of how people could cooperate better using the web. It was a placeless idea of getting along well with other people.
The problem with that is that the thing that makes people really get along with each other is physical comfort in the presence of others. Online, whenever you don’t like something, you just press a button and you’ve left. In cities, people don’t have that option.
If people feel bodily comfort, I’ve come to feel that that’s enough. That is what makes people more peaceable, less aggressive, less prone to violence. Going through verbal hoops and mutual understanding and common shared purpose, and so on, to me, that’s a lot of bullshit. The almost lawyerly emphasis on being with other people is so divorced from the physical experience of feeling comfortable with someone who’s not you, who’s unlike you.
That’s a difference I have with Hannah Arendt, who had a very verbalistic understanding of the city as a place where people interact. A lot of the urbanism in my book is focused on the non-verbal, on the bodily.